My Pile: Acid Test

Here’s what continually amazes me about my pile: Over the past eight months I’ve added to the original, virgin mass of autumn leaves a dozen or more tubs of seaweed and salt marsh hay, hundreds of pounds of soggy kitchen scraps, a dozen carton’s worth of egg shells, a bathtub full of coffee grounds, more pee than I’m willing to fess up to, reams of shredded paper, a steady supply of droppings from the back end of both horse and rabbit, and, lately, enough grass clippings and pulled weeds to fill the bed of a pickup truck.

My pile has taken all that and more. And after everything I’ve thrown at it and into it, my pile still looks just like a heap of old rotting leaves.

Exactly what has been going on deep inside my dark, dank heap of compost remains a mystery to me.

So before I mow the lawn and give my pile its weekly toss and turn I take three ziplocs bags and label each with a Sharpie: #1 is “compost pile”; #2 is “wood chip mulched perennial bed” and #3 is “vegetable garden.”

The precise nature of my pile will soon be put to the test by the Soil Nutrient Analysis Laboratory of the University of Connecticut’s College of Agriculture & Natural Resources Cooperative Extension System’s Department of Plant Science.

And if that’s not enough of a mouthful, wait til they get a load of my pile…

Actually, the sample, as specified in the pdf I downloaded from the UConn website, calls for 1 Cup, “taken from 10 or more random, evenly distributed spots in your sample area.”

Though by now I figure my pile is the very definition of “random,” still I try my best to follow the instructions and extract representative tablespoons with the tip of a trowel from 10 or so spots. I take care to flick away any identifiable bits of leaves, and toss back a sea shell or two.

A close-up of my nearly finished pile. I know what it's made of, but wonder what it's become of itself...

A close-up of my nearly finished pile. I know what it’s made of, but wonder what it’s become of itself…

The other two bags, my idea of control samples, are easier to get. One is filled with trowel bits gathered from a few spots along my perennial beds covered by mostly decomposed wood chips, the other with small scoops from a few spots in my raised, fenced-in vegetable garden.

Why put my pile – and yard – to the test?

“Soil testing is an inexpensive yet valuable tool for assessing the fertility of lawn and garden areas,” advise the ag experts from UConn. “Test results indicate the soil’s pH level, the amounts of available plant nutrients and the existence of nutrient imbalances, excesses or deficiencies.

“Soil testing eliminates the guesswork many gardeners face when deciding the kinds and amounts of fertilizers or soil amendments they should purchase and apply…

“The standard nutrient analysis will provide the soil sample’s pH, the available amounts of phosphorus, potassium, calcium and magnesium, extractable micronutrient levels and a lead scan…Separate analyses offered by the lab include percent organic matter, particle size analysis (the relative amounts of sand, silt and clay), micronutrients, soilless media and soluble salts.”

I seal the ziplocs and stuff into a small box the three samples with a check and a form, checking off the option that requests the sample to be tested for organic matter. In all, the soil test costs $7 a sample, and results are said to be prepared in 7 to 10 days.

After a quick run to the post office to mail the box, I mow the lawn, depositing two hoppers worth of freshly cut grass to the side. I worry now that I am overloading my pile with these surplus grass clippings, and only after I finish mowing do I recall a trick I’ve used in years’ past: I seal off the mower’s grass catcher with duct tape so that all the grass clippings are recycled straight back into the yard. I’ll do that with the next mow, as I figure to be aerating my lawn this fall. The grass thatch and finished compost that I spread will be easily absorbed when the aerator plugs the turf with thousands upon thousands of thumb-sized holes.

I haul out from the kitchen the Hooch bucket half-filled with a week’s worth of coffee grinds and vegetable peelings and a box filled with a dozen or so Dunkin Donut holes, leftovers from a local fundraiser the weekend before that I’d agreed to take home and promptly forgot about in the fridge.

The donut holes are now rock hard, so I add them to my pile, figuring that if it’s worth any endorsement dollars, I’d be happy to say my pile runs on Dunkin’ donuts…

The kitchen scraps, including the stale donut holes, go into a trench in the middle of my pile.

The kitchen scraps, including the stale donut holes, go into a trench in the middle of my pile.

I carve out trenches on three sides of my pile, stuffing the voids with tossed clumps of grass clippings. I go where the pile leads me, as it’s ever-more likely to collapse into itself if I dig too steeply. My pile this year is more massive than in season’s past. I have yet to reach the very core of my pile, middle earth. But still, I am able to turn and aerate a large swath of the outer edges of it, garnishing the leaf mold with as much fresh-cut grass as I can.

My pile is nearly done. From years past I know that if I wait much longer to begin adding its harvest of humus across my garden and the lawn, the surface roots of the adjacent two maple trees will infiltrate the foundation of my pile, sucking nutrients away and leaving behind a web of tangly fibrous matter I have no use for.

A close-up of the surface roots of the maple tree my pile sits beneath.

A close-up of the surface roots of the maple tree my pile sits beneath.

I plug as much of the surplus grass clippings into my already stuffed pile as I can and finish by spreading more grass across the top, then covering with the scrapings of crusty leaves from the bottom edges.

More than ever my pile is a tossed salad of fresh greens and old browns. With enough air and moisture it will  ferment into something that is more than the sum of its parts, a small batch of new soil born of the old.